It’s Good to Be the Sovereign, Unless You Have an Exclusive Licensee

By on August 5, 2020
Posted In Patents

Addressing the interaction between state sovereign immunity under the 11th Amendment and joinder under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a “fractured majority” of the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit determined that an exclusive licensee could proceed with suit even though state sovereign immunity prohibited involuntary joinder of the patent owner. Gensetix, Inc. v. The Board of Regents of the University of Texas System, Case No. 19-1424 (Fed. Cir. July 24, 2020) (O’Malley, J.) (Newman, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part) (Taranto, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part).

In 2014, Gensetix indirectly licensed two patents covering cancer treatment methods from the University of Texas (UT), a state university. A subsequent confirmation between Gensetix and UT confirmed Gensetix’s exclusive license to the patents-in-suit, which required Gensetix to sue potential infringers and gave UT a secondary right to sue if Gensetix did not bring suit. The parties further agreed to cooperate regarding any infringement suit and that nothing in the agreement would waive UT’s sovereign immunity.

Three years later, Gensetix sued Baylor College of Medicine and others for patent infringement. Before filing the complaint, Gensetix asked UT, the legal patent owner, to join suit. UT declined, and Gensetix named it as an involuntary plaintiff. UT moved to dismiss itself from the lawsuit based on its sovereign immunity, and Baylor moved to dismiss because UT was a required party that could not be joined because of its sovereign immunity. The district court agreed with UT and Baylor, concluding that UT’s sovereign immunity prevented Gensetix from joining UT as a plaintiff and that the suit could not proceed without UT. Gensetix appealed.

The Federal Circuit reversed. The majority opinion, authored by Judge O’Malley, held that UT’s sovereign immunity prohibited its joinder as an involuntary plaintiff, but that Gensetix could proceed in its suit against Baylor notwithstanding UT’s absence. The Court affirmed the district court’s conclusion that UT’s 11th Amendment state sovereign immunity prohibited UT’s involuntary joinder. Reasoning that “[i]t is immaterial that there are no claims against UT, or that UT is named an involuntary plaintiff rather than an involuntary defendant,” the Court held that “Rule 19(a)(2) cannot be used to drag an unwilling UT into federal court” because “[t]he Eleventh Amendment serves to prevent ‘the indignity of subjecting a State to the coercive process of judicial tribunals’ against its will.” As for the exclusive licensee’s ability to proceed without UT, the Court explained that the district court abused its discretion by giving “controlling weight” to UT’s sovereign immunity, by failing to appreciate the alignment of interests between Gensetix and UT, and by ignoring that the license eliminated the risk of multiple suits because UT could not sue after Gensetix had done so.

Although both conclusions commanded a majority, they were different majorities. In a separate opinion, Judge Taranto agreed that UT could not be joined, but would also have held that Republic of Philippines v. Pimentel—a Supreme Court case requiring dismissal of claims where an absent foreign sovereign raises a non-frivolous claim of prejudice from its non-joinder—extended in the context of state sovereign immunity to UT’s assertion here. By contrast, Judge Newman agreed that Gensetix could proceed with suit because of various “legal and equitable theories of property rights,” in addition to the majority analysis, but would have also held that UT’s decision to license its patents to Gensetix waived sovereign immunity.

Practice Note: The Federal Circuit’s holding in Gensetix is clear, but whether this ruling marks the end of the road is not. If Gensetix is indeed the last word on the issues determined, state actors and their licensees would do well to consider the Federal Circuit’s warnings: state licensors’ IP portfolio could be controlled by their exclusive licensees, and licensees should take care in negotiating with the sovereigns on whose cooperation they rely.

(Disclosure: The author represented Gensetix in the district court proceeding under review in this case).

Christopher M. Bruno
Christopher M. Bruno focuses his practice on intellectual property litigation matters (i.e., patent, trade secrets, and related contract disputes) in the US Supreme Court, the US International Trade Commission, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, as well as various district courts around the country. Read Christopher M. Bruno's full bio.